Marathon swimmer Mark Warkentin touches the wall at the end of the Open Water World Championship Trials in Florida last year. Warkentin finished first and swims this week in the first-ever Olympic swimming marathon.
Marathon swimmer Mark Warkentin touches the wall at the end of the Open Water World Championship Trials in Florida last year. Warkentin finished first and swims this week in the first-ever Olympic swimming marathon. Donn Brown
Chloe Sutton (left) battles Kirsten Groome at the Open Water World Championship Trials near Fort Myers, Fla., last year. Sutton finished third, but later went on to qualify as the sole American swimmer in the first women's Olympic swimming marathon at the Beijing games.
Chloe Sutton (left) battles Kirsten Groome at the Open Water World Championship Trials near Fort Myers, Fla., last year. Sutton finished third, but later went on to qualify as the sole American swimmer in the first women's Olympic swimming marathon at the Beijing games. Donn Brown
The races have ended at the Olympic swimming pool in Beijing, but there's one more big swimming race still to come.
Later this week, 50 men and women will compete in a brand new Olympic sport: the swimming marathon. It is an open water race of more than six miles in about two hours, and the swimmers often finish just seconds or fractions of a second apart.
Though the Olympic swimming marathon takes place in an artificial lake, training takes place in a pool.
Mark Warkentin, 28, and Chloe Sutton, 16, are America's first Olympic swimming marathoners; practice is its own marathon.
They swim 10 miles — 5 hours — each day, plus running, biking or other training on land. The practice swims are held in an indoor pool at a U.S. Olympic training facility at Beijing Normal University.
"There's too many variables going [on] to find the right open water to train in," says John Dussliere, Warkentin's coach. "It's either too cold, it's too warm, it's too wavy, it's not safe. There's a lot of things living in a lot of bodies of water that you don't want to mess with. Why take those risks? And pools are easy to train in."
Training is the easiest part of the swimming marathon. The race itself is in open water, but the swimmers swim in a pack, like cyclists in the Tour de France.
A Full Contact Sport
They alternate leading and drafting, following a rectangular course with tight turns, and they jostle for position, sometimes swimming over and into each other, kicking and jabbing elbows. Deliberate roughness can result in ejection. Even after six miles and two hours, there are mad dashes to the finish, Sutton says.
"[In] open water races, sometimes a hundredth of a second does separate first from second," Sutton says. "But the only difference is that we've been racing for an hour and 50-something minutes, so it's as intense as pool races. It's just — it doesn't get that intense until the very end."
Sutton compares the finishes to the final heart-stopping milli-moments in some of Michael Phelps' races in Beijing last week. Warkentin credits Phelps for inspiring his exit from the pool and the plunge into open water.
"I couldn't beat Michael Phelps," Warkentin says. "A couple of years ago, I was racing against him and it just kinda dawned on me during the race that there was no chance I was gonna beat this guy. And so I said, if you can't beat him, find a race that he won't swim. And that was probably the genesis of realizing that I needed to do something besides pool swimming."
Strategy Is Key
Both Warkentin and Sutton say strategy is key: sensing when to lead, when to draft, when to break away. They'll swim a bit of backstroke to view the rest of the pack, and to ingest water or nutritional gels. They store gel packs in their swimsuits and grab water from aid stations on docks.
"We think of open water as like the English Channel — open," Warkentin says. "And you think of Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. And it's not like that. It's very tight, very compressed. Yeah, you swim a 10k and there's no lane lines, but my goodness, you are breathing each other's air, and I'll probably end up with a black eye because you'll get kicked in the face or something like that. So, it's a crowded elevator is what it is."
These features might make the sport appealing to Olympic viewers. Being in the Olympics is a very big deal for open water swimmers, who trace the concept back 2,000 years to ancient Japan. Dussliere welcomes the spotlight.
"Marathon swimming's been around," Dussliere says, "just nobody knows about it. It's a subculture of a subculture. ... It's finally getting it's first due in the Olympic Games."
The first Olympic marathon swim is Wednesday when the women race. The men swim Thursday.